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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Carol Fisher Saller, Editor

Cricket Books (2003)

Carol Fisher Saller is no longer with Cricket Books as of August 2003, but her interview is still here for informational purposes.

Carol Fisher Saller has been an editor at Cricket Books since January 2000. Prior to that, she was a manuscripts editor at the University of Chicago Press. She has a bachelor's degree in Latin from the University of Illinois and a master's degree in classics from Cambridge University.

Cricket Books is currently NOT accepting unsolicited manuscripts for review. Please see their website for details and updates: www.cricketbooks.net.

How many books does Cricket Books publish every year and what kind of books are they?

About 15 books, fiction and nonfiction, ranging from picture books to young adult novels.

How many do you edit per year?

In the last year I edited five, but it varies. In addition to my own books, I handle some of Marc Aronson's.

What have you edited recently?

I just finished working with Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan on Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad. It's a very exciting book about how scientists and historians use physical evidence of all kinds to piece together the story of the railroad. I also just finished editing Witness to Our Times: My Life as a Photo-journalist, by Flip Schulke. Schulke is perhaps most famous for his photos of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali, but his career has included photographing everything from the civil rights struggle to treasure hunts with Jacques Cousteau. And for a complete contrast, I just edited a translation of a Chinese picture book.

How many of those books came from the slush pile?

Of the five I edited in the last year, none were from the slush.

Describe the slush pile. Is it an actual pile?

It is. It's a pile of about 20 plastic bins, each filled with envelopes.

Where is it?

In our mail room, although bits of it manage to dribble down the hall into my office.

How many manuscripts are in it?

Wow — I don't know how to guess. Maybe 400 or 500. Bins come and go every day.

Are the manuscripts still sealed in their envelopes or opened?

Some of each. Our receptionist opens them in her spare time and prepares them to go out to readers. The more recent arrivals aren't opened until they work their way up to the front of the queue. It's safer that way: once an envelope is opened, it's possible for pieces of it to drift away, get stuck to other submissions, or get into trouble some other way. Unfortunately, it means that if a writer encloses a postcard for us to return to let her know we received the manuscript, we probably won't find it for several weeks.

How long does it typically take Cricket to read a manuscript?

About four months.

Why does it take so long?

Because three of those months are spent in the queue. The last month is spent being sent out to a reader and perhaps being sent back to me, whereupon it will go into my stack of must-reads — and who knows how long it will sit there! Then I might pass it around the office, mull it over, forget about it for a while, and then finally decide what to do. I'm sure it's maddening to authors to know this, but the alternative would be worse. If we had to make a snap judgment immediately upon reading a manuscript — take it or leave it — we would almost certainly leave it. It takes time to know whether a manuscript will stay in your mind, call to you, or whatever.

Do you read manuscripts addressed to you or do you have an assistant?

I have several “first readers,” freelancers who read manuscripts. They reject anything that's not suitable and send the promising ones back to me to read.

Describe a typical day at work. Be specific!

No day is the same as another, but here are some tasks that I do frequently:

Do you usually read manuscripts at work or at home in the evenings and on weekends?

Mostly evenings and weekends.

What percentage of the slush pile do you estimate gets published?

.0015 (here at Cricket).

Why does so much NOT get published?

Cricket has a very small list and lots of submissions. With only 15 books per year, even if all of them were unsolicited, that would amount to about .0075%.

What kinds of books do you like to work on?

I like variety, and rarely dislike a project. Perhaps because of my years editing scholarly books, I seem to end up handling more nonfiction here than fiction.

What was your favorite book as a child?

It was The Casket and the Sword by Norman Dale. I remember almost nothing about the book, except that I was so transported by it. I also loved Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels, the Trixie Belden series, and all those little school biographies of famous people. I don't remember having any picture books when I was little.

Do you have any favorites now?

When my children were small I read them all of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Henry books, and I still love them. And we wore out a copy of Jack Prelutsky’s The New Kid on the Block.

Is it every editor's dream to discover the next J.K. Rowling or Sharon Creech?

Sort of, but my fantasy is more along the lines that one of the writers I’m already working with and believe in will reach a level of great critical acclaim or popularity.

What must a manuscript have to get your attention?

It has to be the sort of thing I don’t want to put down. If I find I’ve set it aside to finish later, and realize I haven’t been thinking about it or wishing I could get back to it, I know it’s not for me.

Do you read manuscripts all the way through or do you read just the first page?

If the manuscript isn’t working, I read only as far as I need to. Occasionally I’ll read an entire manuscript that I know I don’t want, out of a weird fascination with bad writing. Sometimes I’ll skip around, read a middle chapter, look at the ending.

Describe the acquisition process. Let's say you found a manuscript in the slush pile that you want to acquire. What happens next?

I’m still pretty new at this, so my process is evolving. When I first got the job, I would rush around showing everyone my find and they would tell me why it wasn’t any good. Now I study the manuscript more carefully, make notes on the defects, and write a personal rejection letter to the author explaining why the manuscript isn’t right for us, sometimes in great detail. I wish her luck with another publisher, but offer to take another look if she decides to rework the piece.

Be specific!

OK, OK. After one or more revisions with the author, I write up a report about the manuscript and give it to one or more of my colleagues to read. They add their opinions to the report, and if several of us think a book is right for our list, I make up a profit-and-loss statement (a P&L), which helps us see whether the project is financially feasible. If the P&L looks good, I write a description of the book and send it with the P&L, marketing ideas, and a contract request to the higher-ups. They meet every few months to review contract requests. If they like the proposal but find problems with the P&L, I tweak it until they’re satisfied. Once I have an OK from them, I phone the author or agent and tell her the good news, offer some terms, and start the negotiation.

When you make an offer to an author, do you expect the author to negotiate the terms or to accept the offer on the spot?

I expect a first-time author to accept the terms, although not necessarily on the spot. I expect an established author to make some further requests. I expect an agent to negotiate everything but the color of the ink on the contract. What I expect, of course, doesn't always happen.

Are offers made by telephone or email?

Usually by phone. It’s a fun thing to do. I want to hear the author’s surprise and pleasure. I want to express my own.

Which parts of a publishing contract is the publisher most flexible about?

I can only speak for Cricket Books. We’ll listen to any requests, and often we’re able to work things out so everyone is satisfied. It's challenging to figure out what an author wants most (and it isn’t necessarily money) and help her get it. But ultimately we have to keep a close eye on the financial projection, and we’re only as flexible as it allows. If we don’t think we can make a profit on the book, unfortunately, we have to let it go.

Do you think “celebrity books” are on the rise?

I’m afraid so!


Because they sell very well with minimal effort and expense. Celebrities generate a lot of free publicity.

Do you ever love a book that you have to turn down?

Unfortunately, yes.


It’s because my own “vision” isn’t always shared by anyone else at Cricket. If nobody else here likes the manuscript I’m promoting (or if certain key persons don’t like it), I feel I have to let it go. Although the tacit policy here is that if I really, really believe in a manuscript, even if nobody else does, I can acquire it, I think I would have to be pretty arrogant to disregard the opinions of all the more seasoned editors I work with here.

How often do you send “personal rejection letters” versus “form rejection letters”?

The vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts receive form letters from the first reader. Of the manuscripts they pass on to me for a second look, I reject perhaps a third with form letters, a third with personal replies, and a third with a “personalized form letter” where I type in the person’s name and sign my name to the letter, but don’t go into details about the reasons for the rejection. Within these three forms, there are infinite variations, such as writing encouragement in the margin of a form rejection.

What is the approximate print run of a picture book these days? A novel?

Our print runs are necessarily smaller than those of the larger houses; they vary between 3,500 and 10,000 (the lower number is more usual).

Is it true that most books lose money for the publisher if they don't sell out their first printing? Why?

It's true that a book that didn't sell out most of its first run would likely lose money. The print run is based on a formula that takes into account the advance to the author, the costs of printing, and the number of books we hope to sell in 12 to 18 months, among other things. (To print more books than we think we can sell would be risky.) Then, since we have to pay the advance money and printing costs up front, if the book doesn't sell, we lose. When we do our financial projections, the template tells us how many books we have to sell to break even, and it's usually about the same as the print run.

How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days? The average novel? Is it true that today's books stay in print less time than yesterday's books?

My impression is that books go out of print more quickly now than they use to. I have read that the average time in print for a book published in the United States is six months. One reason is that many more books are published now, and booksellers have to make room for new titles by ditching the old ones. And because storage costs are high, publishers aren't able to print in vast quantities and sell slowly over time. If a book is selling slowly, a publisher isn't likely to commit to a new print run, since it would necessarily be a small one, which means that the cost per book would be high. While authors are frustrated that publishers don't seem willing to promote a book actively for more than a year or two, at least we can be glad that many more authors are being published in the first place than before.

Is it true that editors have little time to “edit” these days? Is it true that they are looking for manuscripts that are more “finished”?

My history in this job is so short, I don't know what the good old days were like. Some of our books have called for extensive editing and rewriting. I myself spend a great deal of time editing. Naturally, I would much rather have a perfect, finished manuscript land on my desk — it's difficult to accept a flawed manuscript with the hopes that the editor and author can improve it